The Role of Storm Water Management in Resilient Infrastructure Projects

Feb. 2, 2022
Looking at thermoplastic pipe & its role in the intersection of resiliency & sustainability

by Nicole Voss

Climate change, pollution and more frequent 50- and 100-year storm events are wreaking havoc on the U.S. Now more than ever, resilient infrastructure is crucial to communities looking toward the future. Federal policymakers typically focus efforts on visible structures, like roads and bridges. However, it is the buried infrastructure — that which we cannot see and often take for granted — that plays a pivotal role in the everyday performance of those visible structures. Storm water management systems are an integral component of the buried infrastructure because they allow the visible infrastructure to be resilient. These systems must be a critical topic for states, cities and municipalities seeking more resilient infrastructure.

We need to look no further than the impact Hurricane Ida had on New York City. A September 3, 2021, New York Times article read, “Indeed, ever-more-powerful tropical storms — including Hurricane Sandy, nearly a decade ago — have offered officials repeated warning signs that the city’s aging infrastructure and subways are vulnerable to the violent weather caused by climate change. The city saw record rainfall, eclipsing Ida’s downpours, when Hurricane Henri roared up the East Coast.”

The current state of momentous changes represents a chance for evolution to smarter, more flexible engineering. It is a time to think differently about available options for storm water management, including thermoplastic pipe.

For the If, Ready for the When

Many infrastructure products tout “resiliency,” each with a different definition of the term. What is the real definition, according to the experts?

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) defines resiliency as the “capability to mitigate against significant all-hazards risks and incidents and to expeditiously recover and reconstitute critical services with minimum damage to public safety and health, the economy, and national security.”

The Transportation Research Board’s TRB AFF70(2) Resilient and Sustainable Buried Structures Subcommittee defines resiliency as the “ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, accommodate, recover from, or more successfully adapt to actual or potential adverse events as appropriate for the importance of the site. Relevant buried structure considerations include the ability to persevere through unexpected events such as seismic, extreme weather, vehicle overload, higher foundation settlement, and non-critical failed elements such as surface drainage.”

Simply, resiliency is the ability to anticipate, endure and rapidly recover from a disruptive event.  True resiliency is more than endurance and rigidity. Truly resilient materials outperform during both catastrophic events and everyday stressors that impact storm water management infrastructure.

Infrastructure Must Be Engineered for the Catastrophic “If”

In 2020, there were 22 catastrophic weather and climate-related events with losses exceeding $1 billion in the U.S. alone. Research from the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests that these catastrophic events, such as earthquakes, flooding and wildfires will only increase in frequency. Back to New York City, a May 2021 report from the mayor’s office predicted that the city “would experience an increase in ‘extreme rainfall events’ over the course of this century, including a possible 25% increase in annual rainfall and a substantial increase in the number of days with more than an inch of rain.”

Storm water management systems for the future must be resilient enough to survive and in the event of catastrophic failure, rapidly recover, and the solution may not be what has been used (and has failed) previously.

Corrugated plastic drainage pipe provides a storm water management solution that lies squarely at the intersection of resilient and sustainable.

Consider geographic areas where there is recurring earth movement or conditions that increase the likelihood of ground shifting. Flexible systems are less likely than rigid structures to sustain damage during seismic activity, earthquake or any kind of earth movement. The flexibility of the plastic pipe lets it move with the earth without breaking. No pipe of any material can avoid degradation at wildfire temperatures, often around 800°C. Even if the pipe appears unharmed, qualified professionals must assess the actual damage to drainage systems. The appearance of stability is not true resiliency.

Earthquakes, wildfires and flooding take a significant toll on infrastructure, often depriving the community of quality of life. Communities need to recover rapidly from these events to restore vital services, including proper drainage. High-density polyethylene and polypropylene (or thermoplastic) piping helps communities meet this challenge. Thermoplastic pipe requires 66% fewer truckloads, which means less congestion on the jobsite and less greenhouse gas emissions. That coupled with the lighter weight, leads to less risk for injury during installation. Plastic pipe can help get a community back to “normal” three times faster.

The Resiliency of Paradise, California

The 2018 “Camp Fire” was the deadliest wildfire in California history. The city of Paradise lost 81 citizens and 95% of its structures and suffered more than $10 billion in damage costs. The fire literally brought the city back to square one.

Engineers helping rebuild Paradise recognized the opportunity to mitigate future risk and ensure excellent performance of the drainage infrastructure, as well as to get the city back on its feet faster. Paradise’s storm water management system was rebuilt with thermoplastic pipe with engineers counting on its resilient performance.

Infrastructure Must be Ready for the Everyday "When"

Extreme events make the news far more often than the average pothole. However, the emergency repairs caused by everyday problems like potholes and leaking joints are more frequent than their catastrophic counterparts and can wear more quickly on a community’s infrastructure. Water-tight joints in the storm  water system eliminate the root cause of these everyday problems and mitigate the risk for emergency repairs.


Uninformed thinking might believe that concrete has a much lower environmental impact than plastic, but the data does not bear this out. Because of its lower mass, plastic pipe has 59% less greenhouse gas emissions per unit length. The carbon footprint of plastic pipe is further decreased through the conversion of half a billion pounds of recycled plastic each year into new plastic pipe, which is fully recyclable at the end of its 100-year life.

Champion Resiliency

The choice for dependability should not just come down to familiarity. Thermoplastic pipes perform when it matters most: plastic’s trusted performance endures both everyday stressors and increasingly frequent 100-year events with minimal maintenance. Thermoplastic pipe helps communities rapidly recover from catastrophic events. Infrastructure engineering must evolve from the rigidity of old-school thinking to smarter, flexible engineering and true resiliency of newer approaches.

About the author:

Nicole Voss is director of sustainability for Advanced Drainage Systems. Voss can be reached at [email protected].

Photo 15163189 © Jbykowski |
Image courtesy Vortex Companies.
Photos courtesy Oakland County, Michigan.
Photo 162020228 © Pop Nukoonrat |
Dreamstime L 162020228